Tag Archives: Japanese

63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

Koroshi No Rakuin

“Showing these incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” –Nikkatsu studio representative’s explanation for refusing to authorize a 1968 Seijun Suzuki retrospective, immediately after the studio fired the director (presumably for making Branded to Kill)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Annu Mari, Kôji Nanbara, Mariko Ogawa

PLOT: As the film begins, Hanada, an assassin with a yen for the smell of fresh boiled rice, is the Organization’s #3 killer.  He falls in love with a beautiful but suicidal woman whom he meets on a job, then botches a hit when a butterfly lands on his gun barrel and throws off his aim.  By slaying an innocent bystander by mistake, Hanada inadvertently breaks his killer’s code and becomes a wanted man, and finds himself hunted down by none other than the Organization’s mysterious #1 killer.

Still from Branded to Kill (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story of Branded to Kill is a notorious example of film studio’s shortsightedness in valuing conformity over artistic innovation.  Suzuki was hired as a journeyman action director for the Nikkatsu studio, directing moderately successful B-movies in the yakuza (gangster) genre.  As the director’s career developed he gradually began adding absurd and surreal elements to his pictures; the studio chastised Suzuki for his artistic tendencies and tried to reign in his flamboyance by cutting his budgets.  Heedless of Nikkatsu’s demands, Suzuki delivered the phantasmagorical Tokyo Drifter (1966); as punishment, he was restricted to making black and white films.  Called in to salvage a faltering production called Branded to Kill, Suzuki rewrote the script to create his most surreal movie to date.  Nikkastsu responded by firing Suzuki on the grounds that the films he produced for them were “incomprehensible.”  Suzuki sued the company for breach of contract and eventually settled out of court, but was blacklisted by the Japanese film industry and did not make another movie for ten years.
  • Nikkatsu and Suzuki later made up.  Suzuki directed Pistol Opera, a loose sequel to Branded to Kill, for a revamped Nikkatsu company in 2001.
  • The script is credited to Hachiro Guryu, a pen name often used by Suzuki and seven collaborators (known informally as “the Group of Eight”).
  • Star Joe Shishido underwent “cheek augmentation” surgery in 1957 to gain his distinctive, chipmunk-like look.  This film was intended by the studio to be his first vehicle as a leading man after playing heavies.
  • Annu Mari has said that she was drawn to the part of Misako because she herself was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the time of filming.
  • Jim Jarmusch, a Suzuki admirer, lifted two famous scenes from Branded to Kill for his film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: the shot where the assassin kills a man by shooting up a water pipe and the image of the butterfly landing on the killer’s rifle.  The Limits of Control also shows a strong Suzuki influence in the way it attempts to deconstruct and mythologize the spy genre in approximately the same way Branded to Kill splinters yakuza films into their basic story elements.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The repeated cardboard cutout butterflies and birds that unexpectedly swarm the screen as a confused and despondent Hanada leaves his latest attempted sex/murder assignation with Misako counts as a bizarre film’s strangest video, but it’s the simple image of Annu Mari’s alluring face impossibly materializing from a rain shower has stuck with me for a decade.  Misako is repeatedly associated with motifs of rain, birds and butterflies, and movie’s most bewitching images all revolve around her.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Seijun Suzuki scrambled a standard yakuza script into a stylized hash; in doing so, he existentialized the material, lifting it into the realm of the mysterious, mystical and mythic.  Branded to Kill‘s B-movie skeleton—made up of shootouts, gratuitous sex and macho showdowns—gives the movie its shape.  But the new flesh that hangs off the recognizable frame is strange, unsettling, and beautiful.


Japanese trailer for Branded to Kill

COMMENTSBranded to Kill is traditionally branded as “incomprehensible,” an inapt adjective.  Any one of the following would be a Continue reading 63. BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: 964 PINOCCHIO (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Shozin Fukui

FEATURING: Haji Suzuki, Onn-Chan

PLOT: Pinocchio 964, a malfunctioning sex slave, is thrown out onto the street by his

Still from 964 Pinocchio (1991)

dissatisfied owner.  Without speech or memory he stumbles, literally, into the lap of an amnesiac woman, Himiko, who takes him home to care for him.  As her memory returns she undergoes a cruel personality change, returning Pinocchio to the mysterious corporation that made him.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: 964 Pinocchio is certainly weird, but doesn’t hang together as a totally coherent film.  However, days later, I was still thinking about it.  I don’t think that the film is a satisfying blend of the weird and the entertaining; in fact some sequences are seriously hard work.  Pinocchio deserves a second look in the future though, because odd and confusing as it was, distasteful as some scenes were, that sad sex slave worms his way into your mind.

COMMENTS: 964 Pinocchio is quite clearly a low budget film, but it is inventive, imaginative and uncompromising.  Many scenes are filmed guerrilla style, and I found myself looking sympathetically at the bemused bystanders during some of the full-on craziness.  A film which includes a three minute vomiting scene will not be to everyone’s taste; and it’s not as if that’s an uncharacteristic sequence.  964 Pinocchio is a wet, messy film throughout.  Pinocchio emits a flood of custardy mess from some unspecified point on his head; Himiko regurgitates mounds of porridgy vomit before rolling in it and re-ingesting it; the head of the company which made Pinocchio continually eats cherries from a bowl of spittle.  The film really screams in your face and refuses to apologize for any of its bizarre imagery.

The film introduces us to one of the two central characters, Pinocchio, as he flounders unwillingly in the middle of a M-F-F threesome.  It’s an unerotic sex scene intercut with shots of a man in vague surgical garb, a huge drill bit entering someone’s head, and a voice informing someone that their memory will not return.  The opening scene really lays the film’s cards on the table; it’s just going to get more confusing from here.  Thrown onto the streets for failing to perform sexually, Pinocchio stumbles into Himiko.  She’s sitting, looking through Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: 964 PINOCCHIO (1991)

61. KWAIDAN (1964)

AKA Kaidan; Ghost Stories

“A hundred thoughts suggested by the book might be written down, but most of them would begin and end with this fact of strangeness… many of the stories are about women and children,–the lovely materials from which the best fairy tales of the world have been woven. They too are strange, these Japanese maidens and wives and keen-eyed, dark-haired girls and boys; they are like us and yet not like us; and the sky and the hills and the flowers are all different from ours… in these delicate, transparent, ghostly sketches of a world unreal to us, there is a haunting sense of spiritual reality.”–from the original introduction to the folk tale collection “Kwaidan”

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Masaki Kobayashi

FEATURING: Rentarô Mikuni, Michiyo Aratama, Keiko Kishi, , , Kan’emon Nakamura

PLOT: An anthology film telling four Japanese folk tales centered around ghosts or nature spirits.  An ambitious samurai leaves his faithful but poor wife for a rich new one, and finds himself haunted by regret over his desertion.  A winter spirit spares the life of a young woodcutter, on one condition.  A clan of ghosts demand a blind minstrel play the tale of their tragedy for them night after night.  The final story tells of a guard who sees an apparition in a bowl of water.

Still from Kwaidan (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The four episodes were adapted from Lafciado Hearn’s collections of Japanese folk tales (the two middle pieces are from his 1903 volume entitled “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things”).  Hearn was born Greek, educated in Ireland, and spent time as a journalist in the United States (causing a scandal by marrying a black woman in Cincinnati, which was a crime at the time).  He later became a foreign correspondent in Japan and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo.
  • Hearn offered “Weird Tales” as one possible translation of the Japanese word Kwaidan.
  • Kwaidan won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (at that time, the second most prestigious prize after the Palme D’Or).  It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but lost to the Czech war drama The Shop on Main Street [Obchod na korze].
  • The episode “The Woman of the Snow” was (unwisely) trimmed from the original American theatrical release in order to cut the runtime from three hours to just over two hours.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s hard to top the image of the minstrel Hoichi covered (almost) from head to toe in holy Buddhist characters or the ghostly court of samurai, it’s the expressionistic set of “The Woman in the Snow”—with it’s constellations of warped watching eyeballs set in a deep blue sky—that makes the eeriest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Kwaidan illustrates the rule that, the better the movie, the less weird it has to be to make the List. Although on the surface it’s just a collection of bare-bones ghost stories, in telling these tales director Kobayashi wisely jettisons reality in favor of a stylized, expressionistic, visually poetic aesthetic that gently detaches the viewer from everyday life and floats him into an ancient spirit world that seems simultaneously to have never and always existed.


Original Trailer for Kwaidan

COMMENTS: In Kwaidan‘s opening credits black, blue, red and purple inks swirl around in Continue reading 61. KWAIDAN (1964)

CAPSULE: SAMURAI PRINCESS [SAMURAI PURINSESU: GEDÔ-HIME] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Kengo Kaji

FEATURING: Aino Kishi, Dai Mizuno

PLOT:  In a timeless mystical forest, a rape survivor takes on the souls of her eleven

Still from Samurai Princess (2009)

dead sisters and becomes a cyborg to avenge them.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Samurai Princess is a relatively unambitious attempt to cash in on the biohorror/splatterpunk formula established in Meatball Machine (2005); fans of this stuff will be probably be reasonably entertained, but newcomers would be better off checking out the aforementioned Meatball Machine or Tokyo Gore Police instead.

COMMENTS: In a few short years, the works of an incestuous group of Japanese writers/directors/FX gurus have created a new Japanese splatterpunk formula focusing on slim but fantastic storylines; extreme, absurd gore effects; and the modification of body parts into bioweapons.  This phenomenon is only five years old, but it’s already reminiscent of what happened with Troma: the studio had a hit, and spent the rest of its existence remaking The Toxic Avenger over and over under different names.  Samurai Princess is a lesser entry in this new genre, and at times it feels like the square peg of the splaterpunk formula is being forced into the round hole of a gentler, more reflective fantasy.  The idea of a justice-seeking living vessel infused with the souls of eleven raped virgins feels like an old Japanese legend, but making that instrument of vengeance a cyborg with detachable boob-bombs is a faddish approach that doesn’t click.  The movie’s setting—a primeval forest haunted by brigands, loners and mad scientists, a place that’s even “out of Buddha’s jurisdiction”—is promising.  It’s a place out of time; the kimonos and katanas suggest feudal Japan, but there are plenty of anachronisms like chainsaws, cameras, and novelty sunglasses with blinking Christmas lights on the frame.  The cast that romps through the forest is nicely bizarre: besides the main character (who’s neither a samurai nor a princess), there’s one mad doctor who collects body parts to build “mechas,” a rival cyborg-building maniac with a pair of female sidekicks who speak in unison, a Buddhist nun with Continue reading CAPSULE: SAMURAI PRINCESS [SAMURAI PURINSESU: GEDÔ-HIME] (2009)

READER RECOMMENDATION: HOUSE [HAUSU] (1977)

The third submission in the June review writing contest: by Alex Kittle.

DIRECTOR: Nobuhiko Obayashi

FEATURING: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Yôko Minamida

PLOT: A group of fun-loving Japanese school girls plan to spend their summer at a

Still from House [Hausu] (1977)

beautiful, isolated mansion, but after experiencing some paranormal activity they eventually realize the house itself may want them DEAD!

WHY IT DESERVES TO MAKE THE LIST
:  “Weird” doesn’t even begin to describe this movie.  A floating head, a ravenous piano, sporadic animation, a laughing watermelon, a dancing skeleton, a glowing cat, gusts of wind that only affect one person, a host of aggressive, mobile objects, and a group of girls who REFUSE to acknowledge the weirdness: it defies explanation, really.

COMMENTS
House is a wondrous sight to behold, with delightfully trippy colors, spontaneous animated sequences, and experimental horror imagery; several sequences are reminiscent of home-made youtube music videos.  The effects are noticeably antiquated, but that just adds to the fun!  The entire film is really a collection of incredible, strange, and under-explained moments that left me as incredulous as I was tickled pink.  Cats fly, clocks bleed, mattresses, logs, and floating heads attack, skeletons dance, and a score of other ridiculous, unexpected things happen at every turn.

The bluntly-nicknamed characters are hilariously one-dimensional, each one relegated to her specific interest/trait.  Mac talks about nothing but eating, while Melody is only the focus when there’s a piano in the room (a very… hungry piano).  Fantasy is the only one who plays witness to most of the strange occurrences, and of course no one believes her for her overactive imagination.  Kung-Fu is by far the best character, handling every obstacle with badassery and no questions asked.  Also: she has the best hair.  Supporting characters include the girls’ heavily-sideburned teacher en route to the House but finding an impediment in bananas (that will make sense when you see it, I promise- well as much sense as it can make), a pudgy salesman with talking watermelons, and Gorgeous’s new step-mother, who literally cannot go more than 2 seconds without a gust of wind blowing romantically around her.  It’s a remarkable talent.

The dialogue oscillates between being frivolous and insanely over-dramatic, but the best part about it is its frequent insistence on completely ignoring what’s happening in its own movie.  Most of the weirdest scenes are just passed over by the characters without comment, and that just makes the “WTF?!” factor that much better.  House is a strange, strange, strange film and I absolutely loved it.   It’s hilarious, inventive, utterly unexpected, and lends no comparison to any other movie I’ve seen.  Look for it on Criterion in September 2010!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You, my friend, lover that you are of the obscure, the grotesque, the inscrutable, and the just flat-out funky and awe-inspiringly eccentric, have never, ever seen anything like House (aka Hausu). Even by my permanently warped standards, House is beyond the pale: a surreal, indefinable piece of proto-Japanese horror/comedy that was made in 1977 (it was director Obayashi’s debut feature), only to find a second life at Austin’s Fantastia International Film Festival, Sitges, Fantasia Fest, and wherever connoisseurs of the outré, the outrageous, and the seriously freaky gather.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (rerelease)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SUICIDE CLUB (2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Masatoshi Nagase, Saya Hagiwara

PLOT: A shocking mass suicide in a train station attracts the attention of the police and a curious hacker who may have found a link to the seemingly random act.

Still from Suicide Club (2002)


WHY IT MIGHT NAKE THE LIST: This exercise in the Japanese new school of shock horror does not have enough substance to be considered extremely weird.  There are moments that light up the screen with an inspired energy that recalls the best horror-thrillers.  Yet, like a Noh theater performance, Suicide Club chooses to keep actual events close to the chest, relying on long pauses and slow takes to create the mood . Noh theater has dancing and music to fill up the entire performance, though; Suicide Club languishes with scenes that are filled with empty silence and shots that mean nothing.

COMMENTSSuicide Club is the odd story of one country’s affinity for self-termination, represented by a strange and tragic mass suicide in a train station.  Why this happens is never explained in a way that leaves one satisfied, but such is the state of the high suicide rate in Japan, and, to be fair, to ask why is almost besides the point. The point seems to be the journey into the strange underbelly of Tokyo and the detectives who must investigate the suicides by journeying into that hoary netherworld.

Well, the detectives and their sole lead, the idiosyncratic hacker Miyoko– I’m sorry, “The Bat”– who has a strong fascination with the tragedy.  This fascination drags her from the safety of her malicious computer activities to a world where secret messages are written in human skin and dropped off at hospitals and where J-Pop groups wield a heady authority over an unassuming generation.  As she becomes wound up in this mystery that seems to go deeper than anyone could have imagined, a youth named Mitsuko also becomes involved when her boyfriend commits suicide.  She too falls into the web of what is appearing more and more to be a sort of suicide club (how titular!) whose members might even be unaware of their membership.   And the deeper she falls, the closer she comes to realizing that she might even be in this unfortunately named club…

But this is all told through the visual narrative, because dialogue is in extremely short supply in this mannered horror exercise.  As is character development.  Or much of anything, really.  Suicide Club is a very visual film, told through a Morse code string of images that reads normal-normal-normal-weird! And when the images are strange or grotesque, the audience becomes intrigued and downright enthused.  But during the slow mood-building scenes, the movie falters in the wake of the sterile, lifeless Tokyo Sono sets up.  It surrounds and eclipses most moments of tension, replacing the anxiety with a vague sense of ennui that does not behoove a horror-thriller.

There are moments of inspired lunacy in Suicide Club that set it apart from the rest of the Japanese formalists, and if you can make it to the middle of the film where we meet the conspicuous character named Genesis, then your patience has truly paid its due diligence, because the film rolls along by then with images too weird and too delightful to spoil for you.  And Suicide Club feels meticulously fabricated in its down time, where the details brim forth from a lack of any real action; seemingly trivial things like the posters hanging up in Mitsumo’s boyfriend’s room are very well designed and hold little clues to the secret waiting at the end.  When it wants to be, Suicide Club has the potential to be a very good weird movie.

So give it a shot.  Suicide Club is worth trying, even if you find it to be a failure.  It’s a labyrinthine horror-thriller with a touch of mystery that will have you guessing, even if the mystery has no real bearing on what actually happens at the end.  Sono delivers what might be one of the only minimalist conspiracy movies, and on that note alone, it’s worth a gander.  Suicide Club is a valiant effort and a weird movie, just not often enough to make it something special.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sono has been making weird, formalist indie films for more than a decade, but [Suicide Club] represents a shift into weird, free-form exploitation. None of it makes any real sense, but it sure does keep you watching.”–Time Out Film Guide